Israel's cities go back to the drawing board to tackle education crisis

Municipalities’ education departments and school principals are investing all of their energy into promoting their own initiatives and utilizing creative methods to address the crisis. 

 An illustrative image of an Israeli school classroom. (photo credit: OLIVIER FITOUSSI/FLASH90)
An illustrative image of an Israeli school classroom.
(photo credit: OLIVIER FITOUSSI/FLASH90)

Today is September 1, the day Israeli children traditionally go back to school after the long summer break. For weeks now, Israel’s Teachers’ Union has been threatening to strike if the Finance Ministry refuses to sign a new wage agreement. 

Holon Secondary Education Department head Michael Meirovich said that while “We all need money to live,” it is not “what sustains teachers and influences their decision to continue working at their schools.” The “primary concern” at hand is the severe shortage of teachers,” he says. 

According to Ran Erez, who heads the Secondary School Teachers’ Association, there is a 20% shortage of teachers in Israeli secondary schools. Meir Shimoni, the acting director-general of the Education Ministry, says that the current teacher shortage is worse, in scope and intensity, than anything the ministry has ever experienced. According to data it gathered, Israeli schools are missing 3,379 secondary and kindergarten teachers, with the most severe shortage manifesting in the greater Tel Aviv area.

Last week, the ministry announced that as a solution to the teacher shortage, it is opening its doors to a wider population and offering benefits and incentives to encourage new, motivated individuals to become teachers in Israel’s educational institutions. This plan will afford teachers flexibility and the opportunity to work in several positions, expand their job scope, and provide incentives to people who are willing to switch from hi-tech or the military to education. The ministry is proactively reaching out to individuals who already have teaching certification.

In the meantime, municipalities’ education departments and school principals are investing all of their energy into promoting their own initiatives and utilizing creative methods to address the shortage. 


How are Israeli cities addressing the teacher shortage?

MEIROVICH, WHO is not only the new head of secondary education in Holon but also the former principal at Tel Aviv’s ORT Singalovski High School, defines himself as “devoted to the field of education because I am driven by a mission to foster and advance learning.” With 12 years of experience in the education field, after transitioning from hi-tech, he has earned awards such as Teacher of the Year; and most recently, ORT Singalovski High School received an Education Award. 

“I myself made the transition from hi-tech to the field of education because I am a big believer in education, and also in people. In all of the positions I’ve held, from a teacher in the classroom to grade coordinator and then finally school principal, I have maintained my faith in the people I’ve worked with,” he says.

He has formulated a comprehensive strategy to recruit a large number of new teachers, as well as to support teachers already in the system in an effort to prevent burnout. 

“What truly interests me is the people involved because they are the foundation upon which education is based. 

“When I think about the teacher shortage, I understand that as a principal, I need to encourage individuals and persuade them to make a commitment to the organization I am a part of, and to help them discover meaning in their lives.”

He says, “You need to instill in people a sense of pride and help them achieve their dreams by providing them with opportunities for professional advancement and growth. Our teachers need to feel a personal commitment towards their principal, as ultimately, they are the ones who keep our schools running. When you set a personal example of this dedication, others will want to join you, and the success of one teacher inspires the success of another.”

The initial step Meirovich takes is to ensure an alignment of expectations.

“I tell my teachers, ‘We might succeed together or we might not, but let’s dream together. Share with me your dreams and aspirations, and let’s approach our work step by step.’ Some see tremendous success, while others less. I make sure to express my gratitude to all the teachers and spend time trying to figure out what I need to do to keep them happy to work at our school. You need to get to know each teacher, give them more responsibilities and roles, empower them, and enable them to shine and excel. At the same time, you also need to provide them with a living wage, of course.

“For example, I had one teacher who told me her teaching schedule did not allow her to pick up her kids from daycare and give them lunch. So, I told her that she could take two hours off in the middle of the day, and then come back to school and continue working for the afternoon hours. She’s a real asset to our school, so if a little bit of flexibility is what she needs to be able to continue working with us, then it’s worth it. If you formulate teachers’ schedules in ways that allow them to have a higher quality of home/life balance, they will feel much more responsibility and be willing to help make the school the best it can be,” he asserts. 

Instead of developing a new curriculum, Meirovich designed “a technique for changing one’s mindset.”

He decided to issue a certificate at the beginning of the school year “outlining what I expect from the teachers, and which skills I expect the students to acquire.” At the beginning of the year, “each student receives a list of personal expectations and commitments.” At the end of each semester, “this list is included in their report card.”

“I realized that if this method works, it would help teachers become more ambitious and work harder to fulfill these commitments. When teachers see the positive outcome, it makes them want to stay and repeat this success. This is what happens when you change your way of thinking,” he says.

THE KFAR Saba Municipality decided to organize an exciting recruitment program to attract professionals and people with college degrees to the field of education. They also initiated a collaboration with the Faculty of Education at Beit Berl College, offering grants for students completing degrees in education or early childhood development. 

“I operate on two fronts simultaneously,” explains Osnat Hachmon, director of the Education Department in the Kfar Saba Municipality. 

“The first front is preservation, and the second front is recruitment. Preservation is no less important than recruitment with respect to all the teaching staff working with kids from age zero all the way to the end of high school.” 

She has established a municipal educational leadership program in which, on a monthly basis, the principals of all the city’s schools gather to engage in collaborative work and discuss shared responsibilities. This greatly empowers both the principals and the teachers, Hachmon says.

“Moreover, we organize training sessions for teachers and preschool teachers, like learning about the Montessori method.” She says that even if schools don’t officially follow “the Montessori philosophy,” she wants “our teachers to know they can take advantage of these [Montessori] tools and integrate them in their classrooms when fitting.”

“When you provide teachers with the proper tools, it encourages them to stay and invest their time and energy in the school where they’re working,” she explains.

“It gives them the freedom and opportunity to think creatively and try out new things. We’ve also begun holding round table discussions with current and prospective teachers. I want the teachers to feel like this is their home turf.”

“WE SEE the trend, that some of our best teachers are choosing to leave the education system,” says Hagit Moshe, who holds the education portfolio in the Jerusalem Municipality. Searching for a creative solution to the teacher shortage crisis, she says: “We must not ignore this movement, and so we are preparing for the long term. We have a limited budget, of course, but we are readying ourselves and are eagerly awaiting the start of the school year. 

“We want to completely transform the employment situation for teachers, not just put out the fire. We want to bring significant and new individuals to work as educators here in Jerusalem. We’re not just providing a remedy for the ‘sick patient,’ but instead, we want to take it to a different level.” 

She wants to “build a community for the teachers where they can also engage in leisure activities, bonding, and trips. We want them to feel like we’re a family.”

The municipality surveyed teachers, asking them what they believed could be the solution to the crisis. “We wanted to hear directly from them what would influence their decision to stay and continue working as a teacher, and what we could change in order to attract new teachers.” 

In terms of new teacher recruitment, Hachmon says that for the first time, the Kfar Saba Education Department included teachers in an employment fair just before the current school year began: “At the fair, we collected contact details from people who expressed interest in teaching positions, and then followed this up with phone calls, and matched them with suitable positions.”

“The only way we’re going to attract more people to education is for the municipality to be part of this collaboration with the schools,” she says.

The situation is such that “We also must allow teachers without teaching credentials to start teaching, while they simultaneously study education at Beit Berl College, and not wait for them to receive a teaching certificate,” since “this would significantly increase the number of people who are interested in becoming teachers.”

In the current climate, teachers are able to choose where they want to work, she says, “and we have to create schools that will attract prospective teachers.”

Hachmon says that the teacher shortage became critical this past year: “We had to bring in substitute teachers, and the difference in the level of learning was striking.” 

“We’d reached a breaking point,” she explains, and “we needed to address this dire situation. We were surviving, but barely. Fortunately, the steps we have taken have prevented a catastrophe, but it requires constant recruitment of new teaching staff and efforts to hold on to the teachers we have.”

FOR AVIGAIL Samin, co-chair of Manhigim, an organization of school principals and principal of the Ariel comprehensive education complex, although “the shortage of teachers is not a new phenomenon,” and “we’ve been dealing with this crisis for years already,” it has become “much more severe recently.”

 “Not all the students who complete a degree in education choose to work as teachers, and some of them leave the system very quickly after they discover how challenging the situation actually is inside the classroom. 

“Some principals leave, too, because they feel it’s impossible to work under such difficult conditions. Moreover, the population in most cities is growing, and not many new schools are being opened. The result is classrooms get more crowded, and as the principal, you are the person that needs to provide a solution.”

Samin explains that “what is usually done is that schools contact college students who are currently studying education and create a direct path for them to come work at your school. Sometimes, we even offer them positions to begin working before they complete their studies because we’re that desperate for more teachers. 

“Second of all, schools with special ed programs are always searching for trained individuals who have a good approach to kids and have the proper training and broad knowledge about special education. We fast-track them for teacher training and do everything we can to keep them at our school. In general, we spend a lot of time and effort trying to identify candidates who could quickly go through teacher training and start working straight away. This could be someone you met at an event where you heard that they were considering going into teaching. I once heard of someone recruiting a young woman whom she’d given a ride in her car.

“Pretty much anyone you meet who is considering doing an education degree and seems like a nice, normal person, well, you better believe I’m going to try and recruit them. It’s like we’ve all become headhunters. I’m always happy to keep on teachers who have passed retirement age if they want to stay. Or if retired teachers express an interest in coming back, even on a voluntary basis, their name immediately gets added to the spreadsheet, since we’re desperate. 

“It’s important to note that even if in the past there were certain minimum conditions that I wouldn’t compromise on, like placing a new teacher as a homeroom teacher, today, due to the shortage, I compromise and give in. Sometimes I have no choice, and I invite students from another school that lacks a teacher for a specific subject to come to our school to sit in on that class with my students,” says Samin.

“The best headhunters of all are the teachers themselves. The moment I publish an advertisement for new teachers, the entire staff begins forwarding the ad to all their WhatsApp and social networking groups. This is in addition to the paid promotion we do on Facebook.

“This greatly helps increase our chances of recruiting new teachers and, in fact, I’ve recruited many teachers through this style of networking. It’s important to remember that the principals are the real leaders here because they are the people who truly understand their schools’ needs, and they are the individuals in the best position to identify appropriate solutions. But you do need to provide them with the necessary tools, funding, and flexibility to get this important work done,” she concludes.

Translated by Hannah Hochner.